Architect Matt Rinka Finds Virtue in Not Fitting In

Architect Matt Rinka seeks a Milwaukee of today – and tomorrow

You may not know Matt Rinka, the 47-year-old adopted at age 5 from South Korea who’s spent most of his life in and around Milwaukee. But you know his work. 

An architect who started his eponymous firm when it was just himself and a laptop, Rinka has designed The Couture, Deer District, The Moderne and Drexel Town Square, helped renovate the Milwaukee Center Tower and contributed to the Northwestern Mutual skyscraper. 

Rinka’s buildings don’t look like old-school Milwaukee. There’s no Cream City brick here, and he doesn’t think there should be. Milwaukee is entering a new age, and the buildings should reflect that.

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A lot of the buildings you’ve designed don’t specifically fit in with the rest of Milwaukee’s skyline. How do you approach the design process?

Design of any kind needs to be contextual. It needs to respect the community and be a real positive influence on any community. I would say that a new building, a new development, first and foremost needs to be a positive attribution to the urban fabric of the community. That’s something we focus on.

A lot of our design solutions are really focused on making sure that the building is going to be extremely successful for its owner and its users and for the community. If we haven’t achieved all three of those things, then it’s not a success.

When you say be a positive influence — I mean, it’s just a building. How can a building be a positive influence?

A lot of people do look at buildings as just buildings, right? But a well-designed, well thought-out building can help facilitate good positive things. Or create bad negative things if it’s not designed correctly. If you put a solid brick wall along a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood, it’s going to be a very negative experience for people who have to interact at the pedestrian level with a solid brick wall that doesn’t engage or provide some activity for people.

I think a lot of architects do look at buildings as objects. But, in my mind, that’s sort of missing the point of why buildings are important to people. When buildings are important to people, it’s important that we think: How does this building interact with the people who are going to use it, the people who are going to utilize it, and the people who are going to look at it? From that standpoint, a building becomes much more than an object. 

How does that thinking play into what’s probably your most recognizable work in Milwaukee: the Bucks Entertainment District?

After we won the Deer District contract, one of my other clients emailed me and said “Don’t screw it up. It’s such an important project for the city.”

Believe it or not, we looked at the buildings (in Deer District) as the background. The exterior plaza, surrounded by the Fiserv Forum and those Deer District buildings, was the space we were most concerned with. It’s a crossroads not just for fans on Bucks game nights, but it’s a place we wanted to “become a living room for Milwaukee” where people can gather to do yoga on weekends, to have a market, to have concerts. 

If you look at the way those buildings are designed, the interior-to-exterior experience of those buildings is extremely important. Instead of just a solid wall that defines that exterior space, the buildings become more like the stage or grandstands for that exterior space. The buildings’ purpose is to help facilitate and engage the activity that’s going on in the plaza, and connect the activity from the plaza to the businesses that are on the inside of those buildings.

You see a lot of garage doors (on those buildings) that can open up so people can flow in and out. That’s really important to creating activity at the edges of that plaza, pulling people into those businesses and making those businesses more successful.

Any specific Deer District memories?

The Bucks hadn’t even had their home opener yet. It was a Brewers game (in 2018) and the Beer Garden connector all the way to Old World Third Street was packed.

That was a really proud moment because it was exactly how we had wanted the community to use it, to use that space in that manner. And not only were they using it in the way we had anticipated, but it was so packed and people were climbing the columns just to watch the Brewer game. It was awesome.

A lot of your buildings feature more glass and steel than the Cream City brick we’re accustomed to here. Why is that?

The way buildings are built today is different than how they were built in the past. I’ll give you an example. Brick buildings in the past, many of them were built with load-bearing brick walls — the stone was literally holding up the building. But today, brick is essentially a façade feature. It’s not a load-bearing material typically today.

The technologies that have been created — steel structures and post-tension concrete and all that — are an advancement that has allowed our buildings today to be not just different but has allowed for longer spans, faster construction timetables, more ingenuity and more glass to allow more natural light into a building. 

To try to mimic a building that was built 100 or 200 years ago, you’d have to recreate things that are simply false. The masons and the stonecutters and the carvings that you’d see in those old buildings, those artists and artisans don’t exist anymore. When you see those really old carvings, one of the ways to respect that is to not replicate it. A lot of times, when you see those traditional details today, they are stamped out of a concrete that looks like stone but is done by a machine and is not real.

When that happens, there’s a sense that you’ve insulted the artist or craftsman who did the original artwork. We don’t wear knickers and wigs anymore. It’s important that architecture recognizes the way we live today, the way we build things today and the way people are going to interact with those buildings today.

The Northwestern Building, River One and other projects you’ve worked on don’t look like classic Milwaukee buildings. Have you gotten blowback for making those decisions?

When people say a building “doesn’t look like Milwaukee,” a lot of times I have to ask them: “What is Milwaukee to you?”

Milwaukee to everyone is different. I would say Milwaukee is a city that’s moving into the future with a lot of high-tech jobs. It’s a city that has amazing businesses that serve customers and clients worldwide.

The notion that Milwaukee is stuck in a certain decade or era, I think, is shortsighted of what our city is continuing to evolve into. Milwaukee, to me, has such great potential. We’ve done such great things, but we have such great potential. 

I actually like when people say, “I’m not sure if that fits in” (about a RINKA-designed structure) because the buildings are a symbol of where we are at in the current time and place and where the city is going in the future. The buildings and architecture and the physical environment that we create become part of a city. In my mind, the buildings we build are an important part of reflecting an era that we’re in.

We (at RINKA) have a very positive outlook on where Milwaukee is headed and the potential for such great things to come. The buildings we design are very reflective of that potential.

I’ll use another analogy. You have to be very careful when you talk about one era of buildings being better than another era of buildings. I equate it to fashion and clothing. We’re not wearing knickers and wigs anymore, right? Our buildings need to reflect the period of time that we’re in, not just in aesthetics and technologies, but also the means and methods available to us. That’s a really important understanding, that our buildings are a reflection of who we are and the time period we are in.

Why is that so important to you?

Because we’re celebrating business that is happening now. We’re celebrating communities and the people living in those communities right now, hoping to make the city better for the future and creating an environment for the future of the city: not looking back. It’s important to understand the history of how architecture has impacted the city. But if you’re only looking back, that’s a path to ignoring the needs of the community today.

When you understand that, you get buildings that are truly of high value and used by people and loved by the community and tend to be very sustainable because people want to make sure they survive. But they are also a marker in time for when that building was built. 

What’s it like to drive past a building you designed?

I’m most proud when I drive past something we designed and people are using it; when they are there or are dining in the restaurants or are in the park spaces or are engaged and living in these multi-family buildings we have designed. To me, that’s the most pride I get.

It’s actually great to hear from people who go to the places and buildings for what they are there for, and rave about the experiences they have had. It’s awesome. I love it.

The Moderne was one of your first iconic buildings. Any stories from that process?

When we were under construction on The Moderne, it was in the height of the Great Recession. We had the only tower crane operating in the entire state of Wisconsin, I think, for a long period of time. I was proud of not just the building, but I was proud of the fact that us and the development team had worked really hard to get the building under construction at a time when people needed the jobs the most. Everyone, from the tradesmen to our employees in our office to our engineers, was so proud we were building this building.

One day, I was walking through the building with the developer (when it was still under construction) and this one gentleman, a laborer, came up to us and said, “This property saved my family.”

The pride I take is in the whole process of what these buildings do, not just when they are finished but the fact that there is a whole industry of people who rely on these projects to become real. 

Your firm designed a 130-foot-tall state-of-the-art computerized boat storage facility in Fort Lauderdale. Tell me about that.

It’s amazing to see the projects we’re doing outside of our immediate community. There are clients who have sought us out for the creative work that we do. In Fort Lauderdale, we designed what is going to be the second automated boat storage facility in the country.

It’s all computerized. The way our client, F3 Marina Group, puts it is that it’s “a vending machine for boats.” Fort Lauderdale is the boating capital of the world. It’s tough to find a dry stack facility for your boat, especially during hurricane season. It’s also in the heart of Fort Lauderdale, so we needed it to be a cool-looking building.

This system is much faster, much more high-tech than the first one. It’s a crane system that essentially moves boats. It can pick up a boat and put it in the water in less than two minutes. It’s pretty cool.

Your firm started out as just you. Is it weird having dozens of employees and work spanning coast to coast?

It was just me and a laptop when we started. Now we have almost 50 people in our office (at 756 N. Milwaukee St.). We’re doing everything from that boat facility to high-rise buildings — there’s one under construction in Tempe, Arizona (the firm’s largest ever project) — to glassy office buildings for the Michels Corp. at River One to restaurants and multi-family buildings.

Now we’re doing master plans and designing whole neighborhoods for places like Oak Creek — we did Drexel Town Square in Oak Creek — Pleasant Prairie, La Crosse, Cudahy, all these communities that are starving for well-designed places. You have different pride for different reasons.

You’ve talked a lot about being up to date on the newest technologies in construction. So what’s next in the industry?

We’re working on a mass timber construction project (aka cross-laminated timber), which is a really exciting new construction type.

(Rinka declined to give more details about the project but did say it’s local.)

Mass timber is where you take smaller wooden elements and fuse them together to create an equally strong, if not stronger, structural lumber that you can use as posts and beams for a building.

There are a litany of good reasons for mass timber. One of them is that fast-growth trees, which a lot of these mass timber buildings are built out of, are more sustainable than concrete or steel or other types of buildings. At the same time, it’s more unique. Instead of exposed steel or concrete columns, you might have exposed wood columns that are really warm and beautiful to look at.

There’s a time and place for any product or any material or any construction type. The understanding of how best to use it is: well, that’s our job, to design that and engineer that with our structure engineers. And it’s a fun process.

What got you into architecture?

I was born in Seoul, South Korea. I was 5 when my parents adopted me. My parents are both teachers, my dad taught high school and my mom kindergarten. When I was growing up, they would always expose me to lots of interesting information and we would travel a lot. I went to Europe several times when I was in high school.

My parents built one of the first solar homes in the area (in Oconomowoc). I grew up in that house. It was a really interesting home that was heated by one wood-burning fireplace, so it’s very sustainable.

It wasn’t a traditional-looking home at all. It was built back in the ’70s. It was about functioning as a beautiful machine that would allow sunlight in at the right times and during the right seasons so that you wouldn’t have to use a lot of energy to heat your buildings.

This is what they call a “passive solar home.” A passive solar home is about placing windows and clerestory glass elements so they’re at the right angle for the sun to allow in natural light. The sun warms the house, as well as a greenhouse supplemented by the fireplace. When it’s summertime and the sun is high, those same windows are protected by overhangs and eaves that protect the sun from getting in.

I think living in that environment, and my parents exposing me to a lot of interesting cultures and things, piqued my interest very early on in architecture.


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s January issue.

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Adam is a journalist who recently returned to his Wisconsin home after graduating from Drake University in December 2017. He interned with MilMag in the summer of 2015 and has been a continual contributor ever since. Follow him on social media @Could_Be_Rogan